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Archive | Keeping the Faith

Turn down the “Stinking Thinking”

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

It is a word of affirmation, comfort, agreement, and relief. It is a word that completes vows, promises, blessings, and all of our prayers. It is a word of release, signaling the end of far too lengthy worship services; and it is the “Get ready…Get set…Go!” when we have gathered around the dinner table to eat. The word, of course, is “Amen.”

At its most basic definition “Amen” means, “Let it be.” Thus, when we say “Amen” at the conclusion of our prayers, we are not saying, “the end.” We are actually beginning, for we are confirming and confessing our trust in the God to whom we have just prayed. We are saying “Yes” to God’s perspective, and we are saying “No” to all other perspectives. Every “Amen” becomes an argument to convince ourselves, over and over again, that God knows us best and knows what is best for us.

And speaking of “God knows,” God knows we tend to argue with ourselves. We have these conversations with ourselves that some have learned to call, “Stinking Thinking.” We create these stories inside our heads about how we have failed; how ashamed we should be; how unworthy we are; how utterly useless our lifework has been; how we are a lousy father, mother, parent, or whatever. I’m convinced that many people can’t be quiet and can’t still their minds because they can’t bear what they say to themselves in the quiet moments.

They have to keep the volume of life turned up to ear-bleeding levels and keep the pace of life at breakneck speed. These people aren’t busy; they are suffering. They are attempting to smother the voices in their heads, because a majority of the time the self-guided narrative to which they are listening is erroneous, untrue, and downright destructive.

This, then, is one of the great benefits of prayer: People who pray are reprogramming their software. They are overwriting the faulty components of their thinking. They are experiencing the transformation of their hearts and minds, for in learning to listen to God’s voice in prayer they can turn down the cacophony of voices around them. And yes, these other voices include the “Stinking Thinking” inside their own heads.

Such praying may not get one everything he or she asks for, but such praying may lead one to getting what he or she needs. To that, I must say, “Amen.”

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. 

 

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You Will Be Free

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

Before and during the US Civil War, tens of thousands of slaves made their way out of slavery on what was nicknamed the Underground Railroad. It was a secret escape from the Deep South. The slaves were assisted by people known as “conductors,” who transported their precious cargo by clandestine means, all the dangerous miles to freedom. And it was Ms. Harriet Tubman who was the greatest single conductor in the history of the Underground Railroad.

An escaped slave herself, Tubman was responsible for leading nearly a thousand people to freedom. And though she journeyed deep into slave territories many times with a huge bounty on her head, she was never caught. She said, “I did something most train conductors can’t never say. I never run my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” She credited her success to two things. First, she believed she was protected by God. And second, once a slave came into her custody, no matter how afraid or demoralized that person might become, she never let them return to their chains. She would say to them, with all the resolve her five-foot frame could muster, “You will be free…or you will die.”

This has been the motto of freedom fighters from Harriet Tubman and Patrick Henry to William Wallace and Nelson Mandela. Of course, who can think of freedom without hearing the iconic words of Dr. King: “When we let freedom ring…we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children…will be able to join hands and sing, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”

Freedom is God’s intention for all of his children; for all people. What God has lovingly planned and what Jesus has dramatically accomplished is far more than a change in the human perspective; it is an actual change of status. It is more than the alleviation of the feeling of hopelessness; it is the alleviation of actual hopelessness. It is not psychosomatic therapy; it is actual rescue from slavery, in all its varied forms—spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical. All aspects of captivity are eradicated in the liberty of Christ. In the elegant words of Placide Cappeau, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.” Put more bluntly, “You will be free.” May it be so.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. 

 

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Choose the future

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

Last year, after years of internal deliberation, Boston’s Old South Congregational Church finally decided to sell one of its hymnals. This was no ordinary hymnal. It was printed in 1640—one of the first books produced in North America. When Sotheby’s auctioned the hymnal a few weeks ago it brought a sum of $14.2 million, a new record for a printed book. But that astronomical sum did not free the church from controversy.

On one side were the church historians and those members of the congregation who felt they had to preserve the church’s history and legacy. On the other side were Pastor Nancy Taylor, the majority of the leadership, and those who felt that faithful stewardship demanded that the resources of the church not be preserved but repurposed to continue ministry.

I watched this story unfold for over a year, and was sympathetic to both sides until I heard the church historian say that the church had two of these exceptional books and if one was sold, “You would never be able to hold one in each hand ever again.” Of course, he had to admit that holding them was not really practical—they are much too fragile for that.

One thoughtful woman in the church said, “I have two young sons, and looking forward I want my sons to learn that it’s not about objects. We can take those objects from the past and turn them into fuel for tomorrow.”

What an applicable lesson for us all. As one year ends and another begins, a profound choice is put before every person: Will we hold on to the past – preserving, protecting, and perpetuating it – even when doing so becomes much more work than it is worth? Or will we use the past, its gore and its glory, as fuel for the future?

I am certain that a church older than the Constitution, old enough to have baptized the infant Benjamin Franklin, and solid enough to withstand everything three centuries has thrown at it, will indeed weather this current situation.

I just hope that the resources from the past will get put to today’s use, and not be locked away in a vault or collect interest in some obscene-sized endowment. I hope the same for all of us. Let’s not make life a museum built to what used to be, but a mission to bring about what can be.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Let It Be

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

For the longest time I thought a “Hail Mary” was a desperate, last-ditch throw at the end of a football game. Having been raised in one of the more contrary factions of Protestantism, you can’t blame me.

Well, all these years later, I understand why some find the “Hail Mary,” or Ave Maria, so gripping. “Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” comes straight from the Christmas text of Luke. It is Gabriel’s announcement that Mary will give birth to the Christ child, the Son of God.

Luke’s emphasis is not on her virginity, however, it is on her capitulation. Mary’s response to her miraculous motherhood is an act of complete surrender, as she says to Gabriel, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Let it be: Where have we heard those words before?

The song “Let it Be” was written by Paul McCartney at a difficult time: The Beatles were on the skids, suffering from their success, and Paul was lost, drunk, and confused. Feeling this misery, he longed for the comfort of his mother—her name was Mary—who had died when he was 14.

It was during this time that Paul’s mother came to him in a dream, he says. And she said to him, “Paul, let it be.” McCartney awoke, went to the piano, and wrote the now classic song: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me…There will be an answer, let it be.”

When Mary—the mother of Jesus, not the mother of Paul—said, “Let it be,” she wasn’t despairing of life. She was receiving the way of God for her life. She was admitting that her designs for living would be set aside so that God’s design for her life would come to fruition. Hers, like McCartney’s, was a song of surrender. It was a song of submission to a higher and better way.

Now, this sounds like losing, like we are giving up, but we lose nothing. We gain everything. By accepting how the world actually is, accepting who we really are, and accepting what God wants for us, we move forward with peace. We collapse into the strength and will of the Almighty. To confess such a thing is to indeed be full of grace.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me

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All means All

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

“We three kings of Orient are.” So begins a favorite carol of the Advent season about the “Wise Men” who visit the newborn Jesus. And so begins a tale that takes inaccuracy and historical revisionism to a whole new level.

First, we don’t know how many kings there were. There could have been as few as two and up to almost any number. Second, they were not “kings” from the Orient. They were, put more accurately, Magi. The Magi were astronomers – primitive by today’s standards – who were on the cutting edge of scientific and philosophical knowledge in their day. Such men called Persia home (modern day Iran), not the Far East.

Third, these men did not find the Christ child while “following yonder star.” They saw the star “in the East” or “at the rising of the sun,” but then proceeded west to Palestine. The star did not reappear until they were already in Bethlehem. And finally, the Magi, technically, do not belong in the Nativity scene at all. They were latecomers to the Christmas party, maybe as late as Jesus’ second birthday.

Still, “We Three Kings” remains one of my favorite Holiday hymns to bellow out this time of year, for the journey of the Magi is a fascinating exercise in unexpected faith. They came seeking the child who had been born king of the Jews, based almost entirely on the appearance of an enigmatic star.

While history is rampant with explanations for this phenomena, one conclusion is certain: The Magi interpreted this unusual sign in the heavens as a clear communication that something extraordinary had taken place in the world. And even more extraordinary, these Persian sages applied their interpretation to the emergence of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.

Why so astonishing? Not many people would launch out on a dangerous journey based solely on a spiritual hunch. Not many people would put their life on hold to prove their mystical intuitions true. And not many Persians (today’s Iranians) would worship at the feet (or manger) of a Jew.

Yet, in God’s way, these all belonged together. Divisions of race, religion, nationality or ethnicity did not factor into the equation. This is a foreshadowing of the Apostle Paul’s words: “You are all the same in Christ Jesus.” All are welcome into the presence of the One who will “reconcile everything – all things in heaven and on earth to himself.”

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Never Left Hanging

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

There is a story told a hundred different ways but with the same punch line: A man falls off a cliff, and just before plunging to his death, grabs hold of the skinniest of tree branches. For the moment he is alive, but hanging thousands of feet above the ground. Stuck as he is, and with no one else to call upon, he looks heavenward and prays: “Dear God! Please help me!”

A thunderous but calming voice answers from heaven: “Okay, my son, let go and I will catch you.” The man thinks about this offer for a moment and answers: “Thanks…but is there anyone else up there who can help me?”

Sometimes – on rare and unusual occasions – God intervenes. He speaks. He acts. And when he does, it often results in more trepidation than if he had remained silent. Think of Moses, barefoot at the burning bush; Jacob in a surprise wrestling match with God’s Angel; Saul, blind and blathering on the Damascus road.

Advent, which begins this week, is no exception. God speaks – God arrives – and the world is shattered. Shepherds quake. Angels sing. Awe-inspired Magi bow. Mary trembles. Joseph, a stunned carpenter, probably wonders if someone “else up there” could deliver him from the delivery of this child.

What was it all about? All of these characters were asked to “leap” from their perches and believe that the swaddling-wrapped-manger-for-a-crib baby is indeed the Promised One of God. Are we not asked to believe the same; that God has spoken and is speaking? Yes, when one speaks of “hearing God’s voice,” it might be time to call the paddy wagon. Great lunacies have been committed by individuals convinced that they were on a divine mission. Some of these insanities have crossed over into atrocity.

But to hear God speak, deep within our hearts, is not necessarily a sign of mental illness. It can be (like finding Jesus’s image in a bag of cheese puffs or an icon of the Virgin Mary on the back of a piece of raisin toast at the Waffle House). It can also be a manipulative way to dupe the spiritually naïve (or sell a pile of books during the holiday season).

Yet, on rare and unusual occasions, God intervenes with a voice booming in our hearts, and we are called to exercise ruthless trust. But, he is trustworthy, and will never leave us hanging.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. 

 

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Never submit

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

One of my sons has a motto by which he attempts to live his life. It is: “Never submit.” I can attest that he practices this maxim rigorously, and it serves him well in many situations, giving him grit and determination. But at the point that he cannot impose his demands upon people and situations, bending these to his liking (and he reaches this point routinely), then “Never Submit” leads to a dark and dangerous place.

Nevertheless, my boy is at least speaking the truth, because this is precisely how many of us live. We refuse to submit—not to authority, the rules, or a way of life that would make our days lighter, easier, and healthier—and not even to God. This shows up, most noticeably, when we pray.

Prayer, if you haven’t detected it for yourself, can be very self-centered. We approach God, not with a view of letting go of ourselves, to receive and live the life he has for us. We approach God with the mantra, “Never Submit.” Our prayers are scripturally-laced ransom letters, demanding the Almighty to do things our way; to meet us where we are; to comply with our plans.

Such an attitude is not unlike the act of checking into a luxurious penthouse. We want something to eat, so room service is called and the kitchen goes into full operational mode to bring us whatever we want. Our favorite shirt is dirty. No problem, send for the maid. She will quickly take it to the laundry and return it before dinner.

Do you need a cab? Ring the bell; the concierge lives to serve you. Not enough clean towels? Want your bed made twice a day? Need an extra chocolate on your pillow at bedtime? It’s easy-peasy: Pick up the phone and the management will be happy to attend to your every whim and impulse.

Does prayer really work this way? I don’t think so. Prayer is not a method for getting everything we want. Rather, it is the means by which we surrender to what God wants. It is an act of acquiescence; the letting go of our resolve, exchanged for God’s. It is not pulling God to ourselves, to our will, or to our way of seeing and doing things. It is compliance to the intentions of God, as he pulls our lives in his direction. It is submission, always.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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You ain’t no mule!

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

Clarence Jordan was born deep in the farming fields of Georgia. Growing up in the Deep South, Jordan was witness to bitter acts of racism that were as numerous as the Georgia cotton bolls – and some of the more zealous racists were prominent Christians. But Clarence, by God’s grace, refused to become a participant. He boldly embraced a humble faith and a prophet’s vocation, preaching peace, nonviolence, and reconciliation. It didn’t win him many friends.

One day a man showed up at Clarence’s farm angry that he wouldn’t fight back. Clarence answered, “You’ve got that wrong. We’ll fight.” And then he looked across the field where a mule was sticking his head out of the barn. Clarence said, “Suppose you walked by the barn and that old mule reached out and bit you in the seat of your britches? Would you bite him back?”

The man was appalled. “Of course I wouldn’t bite him back,” the man said. “I’d get a two-by-four and hit him in the head!” Clarence, with his Southern-fried wisdom answered, “See, you would fight, but you wouldn’t use that old mule’s tactics, ‘cause you ain’t no mule. You wouldn’t bite or kick him because he would win. You would choose weapons that a mule can’t compete with.”

Then Clarence delivered the clincher: “Yes sir, we will fight, but we will choose the weapons. We will fight with humility, grace, justice, and forgiveness. But we’re not going to fight with the enemy’s weapons, because if we do, the enemy will whip us.”

Clarence Jordan died in 1969, still reviled by many of his neighbors, so much so that the local coroner wouldn’t even drive to the farm to pronounce the man deceased. But the man was anything but dead. His deeds and words live on. And while he is not as well known, it is not uncommon to hear his name spoken with the likes of Gandhi, King, and Teresa of Calcutta.

His most prominent work, “The Cotton Patch Gospel” is a masterpiece of New Testament interpretation, and his vision eventually birthed the organization known as Habitat for Humanity, which has partnered with those in need to shelter more than three million people.

In the end, it appears that Clarence Jordan fought well. His life is a testimony to grace under fire and an example for all fighters to follow. Like him, let us choose our weapons carefully.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. 

 

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Waiting for faith to be born

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

Making my usual pastoral rounds at the local hospital some time ago, I witnessed the most unusual thing. A dilapidated Buick had jumped the parking lot curb and had crash-landed in the flower garden just outside the main doors. The driver’s door was wide open, and a group of hurried and harried medical staff was doing something to someone in the driver’s seat.

I slipped out of the lobby to get a closer look. To my astonishment, a baby was being delivered right there in the car’s floorboard. Thank God I didn’t stumble upon this situation alone, for in the magnificent words of Butterfly McQueen, “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies!” Within minutes a baby boy was born, and within days mom and son left the hospital in excellent health (in that same old Buick).

Granted, this birth was not typical. Some mothers labor for hours. Some children enter the world only by surgical intervention. Some babies are born in a maternity ward, at home, with a cadre of attending physicians, and indeed, some are born in the most bizarre of environments. What they all have in common is this: When it comes to birth, every newborn needs all the help he or she can get, to be healthy.

This, as I see it, should be the calling of the church. Congregations should provide safe, welcoming environments for faith to be born within people. Churches should strive to be delivery rooms where the new in faith can grow, be nurtured, and become the people God wants them to be. Let us not forget our role as incubators of developing faith, skilled midwives who assist with spiritual birth.

In my own journey of faith, many people have helped me, people with a soft touch but strong, steady hands. Few of these helpers ever lectured me, formally discipled me, twisted my arm, force-fed me Bible verses, or beat me over the head with the latest and greatest new book guaranteed to revolutionize my life.

No, recognizing that something new was struggling to be born, they were there to gently guide, encourage, support, and coach me. They dove right in—right where they found me—skilled midwives, who let me know that life and faith are worth their struggles. And when the pain of labor has passed, the anguish gives way to joy, for faith has been born in the world.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me

 

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Replacement, not Revolution

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

Last year Denzel Washington starred in the movie “Flight,” as Captain Whip Whitaker, a pilot with the fictional South Jet Airlines. When we first meet Captain Whitaker he is in a hotel room suffering from a terrible hangover, a hangover he remedies by snorting a line of cocaine, just before climbing aboard to guide Flight 227 to Atlanta. The flight never arrives.

It crashed, not because Whitaker is drunk or jacked up on coke – though he is. The aircraft crashed because of mechanical failure, and the Captain’s efforts are regarded as heroic, as there are but a few casualties in the crash. The incident, however, pulls back the veil on Whitaker’s addiction, forming the plotline for the movie.

While it could be said that the producers of the film took creative license with the flight and crash scenes of the movie, what the producers perfectly nailed is the nature of addiction. It devours. It gobbles up a person’s well-being and uses up a person’s identity. And, of course, the condition is not limited to alcohol and cocaine. Anything that initially empowers us, in the end, can enslave us.

And in those moments of clarity, when we realize that we can’t keep living in these destructive cycles, we decide that we want something better. We want transformation; to turn over a new leaf; we want change. But our efforts to revolutionize our lives almost always fail. Our attempts at life-changing revolution wind up being exchanges of one tyranny for another; a swapping of one set of chains for another; trading one evil task master for another one.

The recognition that life must change is simply not enough. Transformation is not accomplished by giving up what is bad for you. No, the bad has to be replaced with what is good and healthy. I think this is exactly what Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was talking about when he articulated those necessary steps toward sobriety, where one must acknowledge his or her powerlessness and turn life over to a Higher Power who is the only source of health and sanity.

This isn’t mere self-help. This is Spirituality 101. This is the essence of the Christian life: Our desires, impulses, and very lives have to be crucified, as it were, so that the life God has for us can be born and lived in its place. It is replacement, not simply revolution.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me

 

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